Center for American Progress

The Imperative to Support Single Mothers in College

The Imperative to Support Single Mothers in College

New research highlights the urgency for better supporting the 2.1 million single mothers in college.

Single mother Monique Burton picks up her daughter from a children's day care center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At the time, Burton was working toward her associate degree, December 2016. (Getty/The Washington Post/Linda Davidson)
Single mother Monique Burton picks up her daughter from a children's day care center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At the time, Burton was working toward her associate degree, December 2016. (Getty/The Washington Post/Linda Davidson)

There are nearly 2.1 million single mothers in college today, many of whom are women of color. Almost 2 in every 5 black women in college are single mothers, as well as 1 in 5 Latinas and 1 in 7 white women. These mothers face nearly insurmountable odds to finishing their degrees—even as many of them are pursuing higher education in order to lift their families out of poverty. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), only 8 percent of single mothers who start college earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with about half of women who are not mothers.

The new IWPR research bolsters the economic case for bringing more resources to bear on this problem. A single mother with an associate degree who works full time earns about $329,000 more in her lifetime than she would with only a high school diploma. A single mother with a bachelor’s degree earns about $610,000 more than she would with a high school diploma. Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, a senior research associate at the IWPR and one of the authors of the report, noted at a recent Portland State University (PSU) symposium that these numbers are lower than those for college graduates in general because single mothers often face both gender and racial pay gaps.

Federal, state, and college support for single parents

Fortunately, there are some signs that the federal and state governments—as well as colleges themselves—are focusing more on college students who are parents. At the federal level, Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS), a small program that funds child care for the children of low-income student parents, was expanded several-fold last year in the omnibus budget deal—from $15 million a year to $50 million a year. Still, the new funding will serve just a fraction of the parents who need it. And the Trump administration is pursuing other policies that could threaten access to college for low-income people. For example, it is seeking to impose stricter work requirements for access to Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other benefits programs.

Meanwhile, some states are improving their benefits policies to better support student parents. According to Kristin Bernhard, a deputy commissioner in the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, the state recently changed the eligibility rules for its low-income child care subsidy to recognize enrollment in an associate degree program as meeting the work requirement.

And last month’s PSU symposium on student parents showcased a number of colleges that have made supporting student parents a priority. In addition to operating several traditional full-time child care centers on campus, PSU offers free drop-in care where parents can leave their children for a few hours in order to attend study groups or extracurricular activities. There are nearly a dozen family study spaces on campus, including a colorful outer space-themed business school lounge with a smartboard for parents and toys for their children. A student parent center is generously stocked with free children’s clothes, diapers, and an array of “fun kits”—youth backpacks stuffed with activities for a particular age range—that parents can sign out if they have to bring their children to class.

Some relatively new resources are available to guide colleges and universities on how to better support student parents, including “toolkits” from Endicott College’s Program Evaluation and Research Group and from Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC), a community college in California.

More resources are in the works. Just this week, 16 current and former student parents came together in Washington, D.C., for the first meeting of a new advisory board set up by Ascend, a program within the Aspen Institute that advocates for “two-generation” policies—those that simultaneously support education and economic security for both parents and children. According to Ascend officials, the parent advisers will spend six months working together on ways to help philanthropists, policymakers, and institutions better serve parents in postsecondary education.

The value of supporting single mothers in college

The new IWPR research finds that the kinds of supports that would allow more student parents to graduate can be recouped. According to the IWPR, offering a single mother pursuing a bachelor’s degree free child care, a case manager, and an extra $2,000 a year in financial aid would cost $55,819 over the course of her time in college; and services variously called case management or intensive advising have been found to improve success rates for community college students. However, after graduating, single mothers would pay higher taxes—as their degrees would allow them to get better-paying jobs—and would be less reliant on public benefits. As a result, an estimated $86,060 would be recouped for each graduate. For an associate degree, those supports would cost $37,670 and recoup $38,129. These figures are based on average costs for supports, such as child care, and the average earning gains of single mothers across different job sectors.

As instructive as they are, however, these calculations merely hint at the true value of supporting single mothers in college. Because of data limitations, the IWPR study estimates only four years’ worth of reduced use of public benefits. Furthermore, it does not consider that free child care may allow many student parents to finish school much quicker, meaning they would require fewer years of support and likely spend more years earning higher wages. In fact, another recent study from the IWPR found that parents at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, who used the campus child care center had more than triple the rate of on-time completion of parents who did not use the center. More research is needed on the impact of child care access on student parent outcomes.

In addition, graduates and their families have improved access to health care, paid leave, and retirement benefits. And the authors of the cost-benefit analysis note that there is another type of societal benefit not factored into their calculations: the improved education and health outcomes for the children of college-educated parents.

Amber Angel, program coordinator at LAVC’s Family Resource Center, is a single mother of two who, as a student at Los Angeles Valley College, benefited from supports akin to some of those discussed in the IWPR cost-benefit analysis. Today, she is a national voice on student parent issues and one of Ascend’s parent advisers. People tell her that she is resilient and tough—that she would have found a way no matter what. She disagrees.

Close to finishing her bachelor’s degree at California State University, Northridge, Angel said she would never have made it through her associate degree program at LAVC if not for campus child care and the school’s Family Resource Center, where she got to work with an academic adviser and a counselor and received crucial social support from other student parents.

At the PSU symposium, she discussed being the youngest child of eight and the first in her family to go to college. When first enrolled at LAVC, “I was working at Baby Gap part time,” Angel said. “I might [still be] working there.”


The outcomes of single college-going mothers represent a deep injustice. Furthermore, the economy needs them. By 2020, 65 percent of job openings are projected to require a college credential, and as policymakers have come to recognize the urgency of meeting that challenge, many states have set ambitious attainment goals that can only be reached by improving the odds for nontraditional students.

The Center for American Progress recently released Beyond Tuition, a proposal to improve college affordability and completion. In particular, the proposal aims to better support low-income students and students of color—groups that disproportionately include single parents. Policymakers and campus leaders need to think ambitiously about how to offer single parents the opportunities they deserve.

Marcella Bombardieri is a senior policy analyst of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

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